When a writer is a doctoral student, on the job market or on a permanent basis, the question of what writing projects he should build in the year often has a rigid answer. The answers might look like: two chapters to finish the degree on time or a book proposal before the third year exam.
Or, worse, in response to systems characterized by unclear metrics, the response could be anything humanly possible. That’s what I felt when I got started. Whatever the bar, I wanted to try to establish some air between him and me.
After tenure, the pressure to publish is felt, but not always in a way that writers find fruitful. On the one hand, tenure often comes with increased responsibilities: chairing committees, taking charge of important ministerial services, more mentoring for graduates. On the other hand, the timing of women’s transition to tenure often corresponds with an increase in care responsibilities, whether for aging parents, partners who develop health problems or children. In my own case, I’ve followed the relatively common pattern of having babies after tenure, which means my time is less mine than ever.
When I was in the job market and then before I started, I developed good writing habits to ease job security anxiety. Many of these habits remain in place, but the old pattern of offering a conference paper, using the paper to incubate an article, then turning the articles into chapters, then into a book, has become a bit outdated. Whether it’s burnout, a pandemic that makes me feel isolated from my college community, or middle age, there’s a growing sense of “what’s the point of all this?” »
Speaking with friends and colleagues, I don’t feel like I’m alone on this one. Without external, however daunting, motivations to write and publish, the mid-career writer may feel the need to tap into new sources of inspiration, perhaps now more than ever.
By inspiration, I don’t mean the heavens opening up and a passion for writing a striking peer-reviewed journal article while you’re jogging around the neighborhood, causing you to scribble an outline with the chalk from a neighborhood kid who was carelessly left out overnight. Although, if that’s you, God bless you and please leave my daughters chalk when you’re done.
Instead, I’m going to offer a few types of motivation here that mid-career academic writers might use when selecting writing projects for the coming year.
The quick victory
It’s been a year. Frankly, it’s been several years. If you’ve had a meltdown or really lost touch with your writing during the pandemic, you’re in good company. In addition to the stress, trauma, and increased workload many have experienced, academic writers have also lost many material supports for their writing. Archives have been closed, lectures cancelled, etc. If you feel like you just need a little help getting back in the saddle or on the horse (use your favorite equine metaphor), you can select the closest project to focus on. It might look like an old seminar paper that received positive feedback, a revision and a new submission that you could overwrite, or a conference paper that wouldn’t be too hard to build a framework for. Work with a friend or mentor to create a concrete, time-bound plan to finish and hit that pup (pony?).
The social project
Many people feel isolated by the pandemic and writing can be a lonely task. Also, friends who have different family situations have become distant and sometimes irritated with each other. For an excellent essay on this, see Anne Helen Peterson’s “How to introduce yourself for your childless friends and how to introduce yourself for children and their parents.” If there isn’t a writing project you’re passionate about, why not reach out to a college friend you’d like to connect with more regularly and see if there’s anything you could collaborate on? Even if you aren’t in a position to try this strategy right now, setting a regular or Zoom writing date can be helpful to combine the need for social connection with your writing practice.
The new audience
If you write only for an academic audience, you may find it invigorating to write public-facing articles about your research area or research-adjacent areas. If you want a low barrier to entry, you can try a blog. If you want social responsibility, you can blog with your students this year. If you need the greater sense of accomplishment that comes with traditional publishing, you might consider thinking about the timeliness of your research and pitching to news outlets or magazines that publish research essays. Having to write in a new way and convince editors and the lay public of what’s cool about your research topic can remind you of its importance. What is the most poignant or amusing anecdote from your recent research?
The purpose of learning
This is where I landed. The next book I write will come as no surprise to people who know me. I am continuing my archival research on a character who has been the focus of my conference presentations and published papers over the past few years. However, rather than writing another thesis book, I am working on a biography. It’s new and it’s a bit scary. To overcome the trick, I go back to student mode. I’ve assigned myself some model biographies to read, and I’m going to audit a class at my campus journalism school this fall. Being a novice and taking my status as a learner seriously brings a different kind of fun to this next project.
Whatever strategy you try, I hope you find the writing you need for the year.
Katherine Fusco is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada in Reno. She also works as a coach, helping teachers connect to meaningful mid-career values and goals. You can find out more about her at Katherine Fusco.com.